Paris’s many churches are treasure troves of spectacular, often monumental, stained glass windows. The cemeteries of Paris have stained glass windows too, but these are small, less visible, and easily overlooked except by those who walk slowly and peer through tiny openings.
According to the City of Paris website, “there are fourteen cemeteries in Paris proper, three of them—Pere-Lachaise (in the east), Montmartre (in the north) and Montparnasse (in the south)—particularly well known to lovers of history and old monuments.”
Montparnasse, the second-largest, is one of the city’s main green spaces, a peaceful park in one of the busiest quarters of Paris, a retreat and place of calm solace. And even on an overcast winter day, Montparnasse offers up patches of rich colour and subtle gradations of lighter tones.
This is, after all, the City of Light, and I love the subtle, gentle ever-changing light of Paris. And in the soft light of an overcast winter afternoon, the bare branches of the trees emphasized even more strongly that Montparnasse is filled with trees, more than twelve hundred of them.
Winter, late afternoon, overcast sky. With no schedule, no mission, not even a map, the quiet dignity of the cemetery took hold of me. I contemplated family sepulchres that ranged from modest narrow edifices with a peaked roof and a front door to more elaborate structures.
Drawn by Gothic tracery in cast iron, I peered through a crystal-clear opening left where the glass had disappeared. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, a shining stained glass window emerged.
A cast iron door stood slightly ajar. My eyes were drawn inwards first by the radiance of cobalt blue and red, then by quieter greys and silvers of a woman at prayer. Trite as it may sound, it was awe-inspiring.
The windows drew me back through centuries to a time when ecclesiastical art and soaring architecture conveyed a sense of mystery, awe, and power to a largely illiterate populace. The illiterate could read; they just couldn’t read words.
A flash of colour drew me to a vertical slit in a locked and weathered metal door.
Filled with anticipation and a sense of being alone but not alone, I realized I was holding my breath. My face almost touched the door, my eyes adjusted to the near darkness from which Saint Mathieu emerged. I felt something words could not capture or contain. I understood more about the faith of others as well as my own. I thought of the trust we put in symbols and things we cannot grasp fully, things we cannot prove but nonetheless know.
At another crypt I wondered if the angels floating in clouds were reminders of a child who died too young. Or was it later yearning for innocence and a life less complicated?
My first experiences with the hidden stained glass windows of the Montparnasse Cemetery were surprises. The day was right. I let myself wander and discover what was there.
Many visitors to Paris go to cemeteries in search of famous names and celebrated memorials. These tombs are certainly interesting, and their history now includes the stories of those who have visited them. But the Paris I cherish is the unexpected Paris. I hope others who search for the expected will also find, and treasure, the unexpected.
Text and photographs copyright Norman R. Ball